It’s hard to find a comp for these Phoenix Suns. As they prep for the playoffs, betting lines get set, and Valley fans anxiously set expectations, we mostly have no idea what to expect. This team has shown us its identity and style, but few teams this young and unproven have ever claimed a 2-seed, let alone made a run toward a title.
The past decade of the NBA gives a few useful examples. There are surprise breakout squads like the 2012 Thunder, who made the Finals way ahead of schedule, and the 2018 Celtics, who pushed LeBron James’ Heat to seven games in a weak Eastern Conference. Otherwise, we see plenty of teams leap from either a low seed or just outside the playoffs to a serious run — think the 2013 Pacers, the 2013 Warriors, and the 2019 Nuggets. Maybe the most logical route for the Suns to follow would be what we saw from the 2018 Sixers, when Philly finally broke through from the Process and started to win.
What separates these Suns from most of that group is Chris Paul. There just isn’t a real precedent for an upstart squad like Phoenix acquiring a Hall of Famer like Paul and going boom right away. You could say the late-1990s Lakers were like that, but they weren’t exactly young before Shaq showed up. Another case study might be the Cavs during LeBron’s second stint, but they went from very young to very old in a hurry. It’s hard to find a good example.
Things might get crazy in the postseason, but let’s pull from each of these and create a template for what we might be able to expect from the Suns in the playoffs.
Start with the obvious. It takes superstars to get to the conference finals or NBA Finals. The Suns may not have Kevin Durant or Steph Curry or Nikola Jokic to go to in big spots, but Paul and Devin Booker are still a sick duo for playoff basketball.
With Paul and Booker, the Suns at least have a claim over the 2018 Sixers and Celtics. Ultimately a good way to measure where the Suns can go this summer may be whether Booker can perform at the level Paul George did for the early-2010s Pacers.
After scoring 17.1 points per game on a .531 true shooting percentage during the 2012-13 regular season, George jumped to 19.2 points per game in the playoffs with .548 true shooting. His usage and assist rates ticked upward and he was even more efficient. Booker is about to finish a bit of a down season statistically, but he will need to score more consistently and efficiently for the Suns to climb the mountain.
Peaking at the right time?
The key to the 2013 Warriors’ and 2018 Sixers’ run is that they improved as the season went along. Philadelphia finished that season with a 52-30 record after winning 16 straight games. It wasn’t quite as hot for the Warriors, but they went 10-6 in their final 16 and then hit their stride in the first round against the post-Carmelo Anthony Nuggets.
It’s been more uneven for the Suns this year. They are 3-3 in May and hardly sprinting to the finish. Energy has been inconsistent and it seems like they don’t want to show their cards. All understandable, and while Booker did say he wasn’t worried at all that they could turn it back on by the postseason, they won’t be anyone’s hottest team heading into the first round.
Path through the bracket
This one’s still largely in flux. Take the 2018 Celtics. They were able to skip out on Cleveland — the only great team in the East — until the conference finals. Instead, they took down the Jason Kidd Bucks and those same Sixers, all without Kyrie Irving. Likewise, the Pacers in 2013 drew the pre-Paul Millsap Hawks before the 54-win Knicks who couldn’t defend much.
On the other hand, there are also seasons like Oklahoma City’s Finals run where they had to face the reigning champion Mavericks, the Kobe Bryant Lakers, and the late period Spurs dynasty just to get to the championship round. That’s a slugfest.
We don’t know what form the Suns’ run might take, but it’s looking a lot like that Thunder path right now. That’s what the West will do. To shock everyone and make the Finals, the Suns would likely have to beat either the Lakers or Blazers in round one, the Clippers in round two, then the Jazz or Nuggets in the conference finals. It’s not going to be easy.
As the timing of these teams shows, this stuff comes in waves. After years of building, the Suns are breaking through. Throughout recent NBA history, teams have made runs we didn’t think they were capable of because they were young or inexperienced. On the other hand, there are some, like the early Lob City Clippers or last year’s Bucks, whose regular season success gets hollowed out by a disappointing playoffs.
We could be in for one of the special runs from the Suns, but they will have to raise their level of play and catch a few breaks in the process.